Is it Legal to Use a Cell Phone While Driving in California?

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With the rise of technology, particularly smartphones, distracted driving has become more and more of a problem throughout the US and here in California. More and more states and local jurisdictions have passed laws regarding cell phone use while driving to avoid serious car accidents from occurring. California has several laws in place that regulate cell phone use behind the wheel.

According to the California Office of Traffic Safety, drivers in this state regularly cited distracted driving due to talking and texting as the biggest safety problems on the roadways.

What do the laws say?

In California, it is illegal to use a handheld cellphone while operating a motor vehicle, except when the device is in a hands-free mode. It is also illegal for school bus drivers and anyone under the age of 18 to use a cellphone at all while driving, regardless of whether the device is in a hands-free mode.

This law applies to all uses of a cell phone, including talking, texting, using the GPS, browsing the internet, and more.

What are the penalties for violating the law?

The fine for a first offense of using a cell phone while driving in California is a $20 fine. For a second and each subsequent offense, the fine is $50.

However, this does not give a full picture of the total fines. Drivers should be aware that they will likely pay more after assessments are added. The first violation will likely be more than $150, with each subsequent offense likely exceeding $250.

Are there any exceptions to these laws?

There are a few exceptions to the general ban on handheld devices:

  • Drivers can make emergency calls to police and other emergency agencies.
  • Those operating authorized emergency vehicles are exempt.
  • Drivers on private property are exempt.

There are also exemptions for people who use one hand to turn on or off a mounted GPS unit and for those who use a manufacturer-installed system that is embedded into the vehicle.

Did any California laws change in 2019?

Each new year usually brings changes to driving laws in California. In 2019, state legislators passed a new law that assesses a point against a person’s driving record in some cases where a person is convicted of using a handheld wireless device (a cell phone) while driving if the device is not being used hands-free. The laws previously did not require points to be assessed against a person’s license.

The new law states that drivers will get a point against their driving record if they are found guilty of violating the state’s hands-free law within 36 months (three years) of a prior conviction of the same offense. This law does not take effect until January 1, 2021.

Distracted driving is dangerous driving

Anytime a driver takes their eyes off the roadway, they are much more likely to be involved in an accident. It is not uncommon for a distracted driving accident to cause severe injuries, including the following:

  • Broken and dislocated bones
  • Severe lacerations
  • Internal organ damage
  • Internal bleeding
  • Spinal cord injuries
  • Whiplash injuries
  • Traumatic brain injuries
  • Concussions

Each of these personal injuries will likely result in a victim needing medical care. This can lead to extensive medical bills as well as lost income if a victim cannot work while they recover.